In far western Nepal, parents long for news on their children.
Traffickers disguised as close and distant relatives work like wolves in sheep’s clothing. The children’s well-meaning guardians reside in worlds disconnected from the realities of the bigger cities of Nepal where the trafficking of young children is all too prevalent.
Illegitimate ‘businesses’ in intercountry adoption thrived in the country until 2017 when the authorities placed more substantial restrictions. In the meantime, hundreds of Nepali children disappeared from the system.
According to child rights activist Bimol Bhetwal, traffickers run networks, starting at the village level.
“Without the help of family members, children most often do not leave their homes,” Bimol says. “So, it is someone who the family sees as trustable who is involved,” he adds.
“Beyond the village level, you see different layers of the network. These are strong, active networks that work in a coordinated manner from the eastern parts of Nepal to the remote parts of the western regions,” he explains, adding that it is difficult to track and monitor the roots of trafficking.
“The traffickers give the family a dream,” says Upendra Adhikary, former Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare.
“If we do not work with the gaun palikas and wards to identify vulnerabilities, we cannot control child trafficking,” Upendra adds.
Many children who made it to the big cities with child recruiters ended up in squalid homes and trapped in illegitimate adoption ‘businesses’ that profited off of their vulnerabilities.
“Every child needs a family, and the family must provide a safe, supportive, and caring environment,” says Milan Dharel. “But it must follow the principle of necessity,” Milan adds.
Milan is the Executive Director of the National Child Rights Council (NCRC) that was formed, along with local child rights boards, under the Act Relating to Children 2018, when the Central Child Welfare Board (CCWB) and district child welfare boards were dissolved. It is the apex body of the government to protect and promote child rights.
Every child has the right to protection from being exploited economically. The Act Relating to Children guarantees special protection and alternative care for children who fall within specific clauses set out in the act, including those who are orphans or found abandoned in hospitals or other public places or separated from parents or left unclaimed, with the identity of their parents unknown.
No child can be kept in a children’s home aside from those under these categories and children under temporary protection services.
“Adoption became a business,” he says. “We had several complaints regarding the manipulation of documentation relating to these children and instances of overcharging adoptive parents. It started to resemble child trafficking,” Milan adds.
“Some children in these homes do not even need to be protected in these settings. Their economic backgrounds are good,” explains Bimol.
“Since 2017, we have put a hold on inter-country adoption,” says Milan. “Non-Resident Nepalis (NRNs) are also considered foreigners by their citizenship status as we do not have binary citizenship provisions in Nepal,” he explains.
Separating children from parents or guardians to be placed in children’s homes is considered as a last resort for alternative care.
According to Milan, the NCRC has listed 57 temporary protection service providers that receive some form of financial support from the government on a case basis. “We are not very aware of the financial sources of the rest. A large number of child care homes are not even registered with the Social Welfare Council,” he adds.
“Most homes are not transparent in their financial operations,” Milan explains.
The last resort for alternative care
Before the suspension of inter-country adoptions, adoptive parents paid thousands of dollars to child care homes and for paperwork. In addition, alleged under-the-table transactions significantly increased costs.
Meanwhile, it took longer for some Nepalis to adopt children from their own country – the ‘profits’ were not as lucrative.
According to Milan, the government now regulates inter-country adoption under the National Civil (Code) Act 2017.
“But again, for the functioning of the regulation mechanism, we need an agency or body to be designated as a facilitator. That has not happened so far,” he explains.
According to the 2020 State of Children in Nepal report, in FY 2019/20, 489 child care homes in Nepal housed 11,350 children (5,194 boys and 6,156 girls) across 45 districts, with the highest number of such homes in the Bagmati province.
In the same period, the NCRC conducted ‘on-site monitoring’ in 216 child care homes in 12 districts, including Kathmandu and Lalitpur. Their findings showed that 14 child care homes were operating in ‘poor condition without meeting the standards.’
Of these 14 homes, eight were ‘alerted to operate as per the standards.’ Further, authorities rescued 55 children from the other six homes, from which 52 children were reunited with their families, and three were put under temporary protection.
Discrepancies have also previously been highlighted between government records and those maintained by the United States, Denmark, France, and seven other countries.
Monitoring the status of adopted children
“Legally, our diplomatic missions are responsible for monitoring. The Ministry has the responsibility to monitor and report,” says Milan. “But to be honest, we do not know the current status of many children who were adopted.”
Milan adds that these issues are not unique to Nepal. ‘These are bigger issues. It is the duty of the adoptive parents to inform the children about their nationality, parents, and origin, support contact with families, and report to the authorities, but it has not been practised well,” he adds.
In relation to monitoring child care homes within Nepal, Milan says that the authorities monitor four aspects of the facilities.
“We have a system and unit for monitoring. We look at governance, the physical structure, how children were recruited, and the behaviours of the staff and board,” he shares.
“The cases relating to rescued children are recorded and managed using a case management system. We try to identify their parents and make contact with them, conduct counselling with both the parents and the children, and assess their situation so that we are confident that the child is in a safe place,” he explains.
“Finally, we make a plan for rehabilitation and reintegration, and reintegrate the child in the presence of the local government to make the local government accountable,” Milan adds.
As per the Act Relating to Children, a person, guardian, or organisation has to submit the details of the children under their care, within a stipulated period each year, to the Local Child Rights Committee through the concerned Child Welfare Authority.
This report is submitted annually to the Provincial level Child Rights Committee and Local Level Child Rights Committee. These committees are further responsible for monitoring the status of children and the ‘quality and effectiveness’ of services on the province and local levels.
Push for domestic adoption
“A lot of Nepali couples who do not have children are interested in adopting a child. There is a long queue of applications,” says Milan.
“We thought it would be good to promote domestic adoption and consider inter-country adoption as an alternative,” he explains. “In fact, we have not designated any adoption agency in the last four years. For domestic adoption, we do not need to list any agency,” he adds.
According to Milan, if a child can be legally defined as an orphan, the application for their adoption can be taken to court for due process.
However, questions remain whether domestic adoption would have similar issues to inter-country adoption.
“The same issues may exist. There are also possibilities that if a child was defined as an orphan, their parents come back and say they have lost their child and want to take the child home,” Milan adds.
A Nepali child rights activist tells us even as things are changing, illegal adoptions still occur.
“There are some mechanisms at the government level. At the province or local level, they are strengthening mechanisms with the support of NCRC,” says Bimol.
“When a girl child is rescued and reintegrated with the family, she is more vulnerable to being discriminated against. There is a stigma attached to her situation,” he explains, adding that there is even more discrimination in cases of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
“We are trying to build a system. For example, let the girl child continue to study but go to another or a new school where she can find a good space and friendly environment to continue her studies. We are creating alternatives for her schooling and even accessing other services so that the mental health and wellbeing of the child is duly taken of,” Bimol adds.
The long road ahead
“There have been significant changes in the operation of child care homes since inter-country adoptions were put on hold,” says Milan. “There are new systems emerging to regulate domestic adoption.”
“We needed to run a vigorous campaign. Till now, more than 200 local governments have systems in place. Now we can be hopeful that the monitoring of adopted children or children in alternative care or in legal custody can be overseen by the local child rights committee and local child rights commissions, which is the legal mandate of these agencies, too,” he adds.
This December, the NCRC hopes to launch a new digital system called the ‘Child Protection Information Management System’.
“Any child who comes in contact with the NCRC, the issues and the entire process will be tracked on the system. We will be able to track the child at any point in time,” says Milan. “It will be operated by the local child welfare officers, child helpline operators, and the missing children response centres,” he adds.
“I think it will still take some more time to really ground these systems. Because of the federal structure of the government, they need to be directly implemented at the local level by the local governments,” Bimol adds.
“We can come up with papers, documents, and standards and norms, but to get these systems working well at the grassroots level, we need to properly orient the staff and officials at the local level, beginning with sensitising them on the rights of children,” he explains, adding that some rural municipalities in Nepal are not aware of the numbers of children who have been trafficked in their region.
“These types of documentation and recording systems and other ways to address these issues are slowly coming up, but it may take some more years for Nepal to really ground these systems for the wellbeing of children,” Bimol concludes.
By the time Mina (name changed) was 15 years old, she had made plans to get married.
The boy worked at her school, and Mina knew little about his background. She just knew that it was the right decision at the time.
When Mina’s school found out about the situation, they decided to confine her to her hostel room for four days.
Raju Dhamala from the Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF) recalls the incident.
Their team had decided to send their counsellor to understand the real reason behind Mina’s resolve.
In reality, Mina was feeling isolated and uncomfortable. She wanted to escape her predicament through the arrangement. The medium of instruction at her school was English, and Mina lacked the language skills to communicate in class. Her teacher would also find ways to embarrass her.
NYF decided to transfer Mina to another school where she could communicate in Nepali. Today, she is able to work due to her bachelor degree and lead an independent life.
“Her life was nearly destroyed due to early marriage,” says Raju, the Executive Director at the organisation.
NYF runs a children’s home along with several other programmes for Nepali youth, including vocational training and scholarships. Their work in rescuing girls who were sold into slavery through the practice of Kamlari in Nepal had won high praise from international media.
“We found some parents exchanging their girls with radios and watches, among other things. Girls as young as five were taking care of older children and living in horrible conditions,” Raju recalls.
Today, these independent young women run cooperatives and participate in politics.
These are just a few examples of the many children and youth who have benefited from timely interventions by organisations like NYF.
Through their counselling centre, the team provides continued psychological support for children who have experienced trauma, including using sand tray therapy as a tool for healing.
“We also have social workers. We assign our students to them. They work with the student, their guardian or relative and their school, maintain frequent contact, and monitor their progress and development,” Raju explains.
Disappeared from the system
Findings from an inquiry commission led by former high court Chief Judge Hari Babu Bhattarai reveal that, between 2049 to 2076 BS, Nepal Children’s Organisation (NCO) officials were allegedly involved in child trafficking.
In almost three decades, 948 children were sent abroad, of which 72 children exist on file. The amount collected from these adoptions was reportedly used for illegitimate purposes.
It has been more than a year since the commission submitted its findings. However, no concrete action has been taken by the authorities and further investigations are pending.